The Tar Heels were rocked to their foundations at the close of the first half, giving up 14 points in mere seconds to end the half and another touchdown right after the half.
“We gave them a touchdown with what - 15, 13 seconds on the clock? - and then they turn around and return the opening kickoff? That will put most teams away right there,” head coach Larry Fedora said.
At that point, down 35-21 and facing a loss on Senior Day, the Tar Heels took charge.
“I’d say ‘somber’ would be a good word,” guard Jonathan Cooper said of the mood of the team following the kickoff return. “We try to handle adversity, but we are human, it kind of got us down a little bit, but we really unified at that point and stuck together and just decided to fight through it.”
Did it create flashbacks of the Georgia Tech game?
“Possibly,” Cooper said with a wry smile. “I mean you hate to see that kind of stuff happen, but yes, I guess you could say that.”
Maryland, one of the worst offenses in the conference and country statistically, seemed to be channeling the Green Bay Packers in the first half, rolling up 28 points and 304 yards, with Shawn Petty, a converted linebacker, doing a star turn as Aaron Rogers – or so the UNC defense made him appear to be.
Until the second half.
The Maryland offense could only manage 3 points and 100 yards of total offense in the second half, including a minus-seven tally in the third quarter.
“It was like two different games in the first half and second half,” Fedora said. “I am proud of the way these guys fought back in the second half, came out there and scratched, clawed their way to a victory.”
“Just energy,” Fedora said. “We didn’t change anything, with the adjustments. All we talked about at halftime was just playing with some energy. If you saw, even in the first half when we made plays, there was no excitement out there and you cannot play the game that way – especially on defense, you cannot play without energy and passion and excitement, because guys feed off each other.
“Somebody would make a play and there wasn’t anybody jumping on him, tapping hats, and creating the excitement that we want, but we did get that in the second half.”
This wasn’t the first time this North Carolina football team faced adversity and the players were prepared to overcome it.
“I talked to the seniors last night about – not just in the game of football but in the game of life you’re going to have some adversity all the time,” Fedora said. “I mean I don’t want to break their spirit, but I told them, guys, life is full of adversity, that’s all it is, it is how you react to it what you do to overcome it, that’s what determines what kind of man you really are.”
Bryn Renner, who tossed five touchdown passes on the night, put the game, and the season into perspective.
“To sum up our whole season, I think Jonathan Cooper, the rock of our team said it best, and we had this saying, ‘Hang loose.’ We did the Hawaii sign and when everything is kind of chaotic and adversity comes, we just kind of ‘hang loose.’ We have dealt with adversity before, on and off the field, so we knew how to bounce back and have a great second half.”
It was a game that could have derailed a key goal this team hoped to accomplish - the de facto championship of the Coastal Division. However, led by the seniors who have endured more than their share of adversity during their careers, Carolina fought back, and closed the season on a high note.